Invasion of the Lace Corals

16 February 2008 (All day)

Albert Lindner

Rising up.
The deep-water Stylasterid coral Cyclohelia lamellate is crashing shallow waters.

BOSTON–In the evolutionary battleground of the sea, most of the action is thought to take place in shallower waters. There, the constant struggle between predator and prey has sparked new ways of killing and better means of defense. Those species less equipped for the fight have often taken refuge in deeper water. Yesterday, here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (ScienceNOW's publisher), a biologist presented the first strong evidence that some corals have taken the opposite path, rising from the deep to invade shallow water several times.

The corals are called Stylasteridae, also known as lace or hydrocorals. They first appeared 65 million years ago and live as deep as 2800 meters--and perhaps farther down, too. Just 10% of stylasterid species inhabit shallow water. Alberto Lindner of the Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil, collected samples of Stylasteridae from around the world, mainly from fishing trawlers that had snagged the corals and from scientific dredging.

Lindner sequenced and compared their DNA. By constructing a family tree, he and colleagues determined that the shallow-water Stylasteridae evolved from relatives in deeper water. They have invaded the tropics three times and the temperate waters once. Two lineages gained enough of a foothold to thrive and diversify. A paper on the findings is in review.

The team doesn't yet know exactly when or how the invasions took place. One idea is that Stylasteridae managed to sneak into a shallow-water microhabitat that was similar to their deep-water environment, such as a cave or a dark overhang. Marine ecologist Richard Aronson of the University of South Alabama's Dauphin Island Sea Lab says it's not surprising that some species would move up from deep water but that this is the first solid example.

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